Land of the rising sun shines on Oly

COMMUNITY-WIDE CELEBRATION: Mark Japanese new year with symbolic food, music, crafts and merriment

January 28, 2011 


    What: The traditional Japanese family new year celebration includes activities for children; demonstrations and performances of Japanese dance, music and martial arts; exhibits of Japanese arts and crafts; and Japanese cuisine.

    When: 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Saturday with mochi pounding from 10 a.m.-noon

    Where: Olympia Center, 222 Columbia St. N., Olympia

    Admission: Free

    Mark the calendar: The annual Bon Odori in downtown Olympia will be later than previous years. This year, it will be Aug. 13.

The new year starts in Japan with the energy of a cultural tsunami.

The first three days of January, Japanese exchange cards, sip spiced “otoso” rice wine and throw parties for co-workers and friends. They visit shrines, temples and relatives, even if they have to cross the country. They eat symbolic new year foods in homes they’ve spent days, if not weeks, cleaning.

On Saturday, South Sound residents can celebrate a condensed version of the holiday at Oshogatsu in Olympia: A Traditional Japanese Family New Year Celebration.

It’s believed to be the first community- wide celebration in Olympia of “oshogatsu,” the Japanese word for new year, said Peter Okada, event co-organizer.

The Olympia-Kato Sister City Association is sponsoring the day of free activities and demonstrations at the Olympia Center. The association promotes cross-cultural understanding with Olympia’s sister city and coordinates annual exchanges of high school students and community leaders between the two cities.

It is the group that has co-organized the huge Bon Odori celebration for 24 summers in Olympia, when people wear “yukata” (an informal cotton kimono) and perform Japanese dance in the streets.

Okada hopes Oshogatsu will become an annual festival in Olympia.

“This is roughly six months apart from the Bon Odori. We now have a very colorful summer event and, we hope, a very fun and colorful and interesting winter event that helps to bring our community out of the winter doldrums,” said Okada, 61, of Olympia.

In contrast to the summer Bon Odori, he added, “Oshogatsu is more of a family observance. It’s very important for families to be together. It’s hugely symbolic in almost everything you see and touch and eat.”

The typical new year’s meal, for instance, includes sweetened black soybeans called “kuromame.” Eating the black beans symbolizes the wish to stay healthy in the coming year.

Saturday’s festivities begin with the making of “mochi,” another traditional new year’s food. Visitors can wield a wooden mallet to pound hot, sweet rice into a smooth pasty dough, then use their hands to form the dough into round, palm-size cakes.

Children can play Japanese-style “hanetsuki” badminton, a popular new year’s game, and fold “origami” paper into animal shapes. Instead of pinning a tail on the donkey, blind-folded youngsters can try to pin a nose, eyes, or mouth on a paper human face. Volunteers from Hands on Children’s Museum will help kids make six-sided kites to take home and fly.

Elsewhere at the center, artists from throughout Puget Sound will demonstrate Japanese calligraphy, paper cutting, block printing and embroidery. Craftsmen will tie elaborate “mizu-hiki” cord into fancy knots and make intricately decorated ornamental balls called “mari.”

Visitors can try on a kimono and watch the animé movie, “Miyori in the Sacred Forest.”

A half-dozen groups will perform classical Japanese dance, play the koto (Japanese harp), the stringed shamisen and the taiko drum. Visitors can see martial arts demonstrations of aikido, kendo fencing and iado sword drawing.

“Not all of these arts and crafts are directly related to oshogatsu, though some are,” Okada said. “What we’re trying to do is maintain some authenticity, but above all make this a very joyful event. It’s sort of an excuse to bring the best face of Japanese culture to Olympia. It’s never been done before. All these artists and crafters are coming down to share their skills and their art with the people of Thurston County.”

Tummies have not been forgotten. Hungry visitors can purchase teriyaki chicken and beef, mochi, yakisoba, sushi and other fare from the land of the rising sun.

“People can come in there and for six hours can not only observe Japanese culture but they’ll see it, they’ll hear it, they’ll wear it, they’ll taste it,” Okada said, “and maybe for six hours experience how joyful it is to be Japanese – and what’s wrong with that?”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694,

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